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Quickly turning in-person meetups to virtual

truckerfling profile image Sarah Thiam ・8 min read

In the 2 weeks since my last post on managing initial cancellations of community activity due to COVID-19, we quickly turned things around and ran 3 virtual meetups in the span of 4-7 days.

These meetups were co-organized between the communities and myself (they did most of the work!) as we had both previously committed audience and speakers. I'm so so thankful for everyone's willingness to adapt and experiment. This is what we all need right now.

In Part 2 here, I'll share my experience on virtual community meetup experiments, considerations and platform comparisons.

Context

For those reading this in retrospect of the COVID-19 period, or if you needed to tune out of the news for a bit (I know, it's a lot) here's brief context of the global situation in relation to the dev scene.

Today, the virus is sort of in "wave 2". I totally invented this analogy, for easy explanation in this post. Wave 0 was China, Wave 1 were badly affected Asian countries (Singapore, Japan, Taipei etc.) and we went through the whole cycle of panic buying, border control, event cancellations. Wave 2 are the next round of countries to have spiked number of cases (Korea, Italy, Iran etc.) and with early news, it seems US may be Wave 3. touch wood

During each wave, the DevRel scene generally goes through a few phases - news watching to see how bad the situation really is, doubt and hesitation to cancel your events or not, everyone starting to cancel and so you quickly do so too, busy discussions on whether to postpone or go virtual or cancel, crazy busy planning to go virtual, trying to think about how to make sense of the million virtual events now going on.

This article intends to help with reducing the crazy busy planning to go virtual with dev communities.

So, how can you switch quickly from in-person to virtual meetups?

  1. Decide to go virtual, postpone or cancel with your community: The decision mostly comes from a place of understanding the effort put into preparing for a talk. If you have speakers prepped and ready to go, with time booked in, it's great to do a virtual meetup and respond to adversity with agility. Meeting in-person doesn't have to be a deal breaker.

    If your speakers are also affected by the pandemic in some way, or have not yet prepared then perhaps you can postpone.

    I try not to cancel because it can be demoralizing to speakers, organizers and even to audiences who perhaps can use some community connection in this time of public panic and isolation. Whatever it is, decide with and not for, your community.

    Need help convincing your stakeholders? Major pros of virtual:

    • Cost nothing
    • Demand generation run way is about 4 days minimum (a quarter of in-person event's)
    • It's more accessible than in-person events, with the captioning and ease of attending from comfort of your own setup
    • You can now expand your meetup to a wider geography since physical barriers are not an issue
    • You won't get the virus?
  2. Now that you are going to go virtual, choose your platform: So this time, we did virtual meetups with Singapore Javascript (on Zoom), Microsoft AI-ML Singapore (on Teams Live), .NET Developers Singapore (YouTube Live). (Shoutout to the community leaders who refused to give in to the virus, and went ahead on this with us Min Ong, Michael Cheng, Riza Marhaban, Goh Chun Lin, Setu Chokshi, Sakthis Kumar)

    Coincidentally, they all took place on the same evening and I had a chance to observe differences in community experience and engagement across platforms. Sharing my breakdown and considerations that might help your decision-making:

    Microsoft Teams Live Zoom YouTube Live
    Presentation Can see both presenter and shared screen Can only see shared screen Can only see shared screen

    Ads still pop out
    Interactivity Can only see presenter’s cam, no option to see the rest or beyond 4 profiles. Hard to interact especially if new to community

    Moderated Q&A was strictly Q&A which led to the least interaction (2 questions in 60 mins)
    Access to all profiles/videos of attendees throughout made the virtual meeting feel more like a meetup

    Open Q&A chat, had the highest engagement (14 questions in 75 mins)
    No access to see any other members other than presenter which limited interactivity

    Open Q&A chat (7 questions in 40 mins). Only platform that includes history of chat if some join late.
    Accessibility Live captioning is a choice to attendee, on Teams instance but not if viewed on browser No live captioning Live captioning set by organizer and a 5-step process to set it up
    On-demand Only host can record. Recording is immediately downloadable through Stream. Stream also auto closed captions the recording. Attendees can record for own use. No auto-captioning Only host can record. Auto-uploaded to YouTube. No auto-captioning
    Privacy Option to join with shown email or join anonymously

    Attendee report to host excludes attendee emails if “joining anonymously”
    Join with chosen name, option to remain anonymous

    Attendee report to host contains attendee emails
    Join with existing YouTube profile, no option to be anonymous

    Analytics report doesn’t capture individual attendee date

    Gotta say... Teams Live is my go-to for privacy and accessibility standards, while Zoom is my go-to for quick turnarounds and interactivity.

    Once I shared this out with the rest of my team, a few other suggestions came back:

    • how about virtual reality meeting rooms instead of just webcam, like AltVR that Cassie recommended.
    • Em recommended bringing in a human live translator to help with caption accuracy which makes a world of difference to those with different needs.
    • and a good reminder from Mary, who's based in China, that there are other platforms that different countries use, as connectivity of a single platform isn't always consistent from country-to-country. Saw this pretty good article on video conferencing options in China for example.

    How was the actual experience?

    Some learnings and tips/tricks:

    • Get a great moderator - someone who is welcoming and can foster an engaging and open atmosphere online. Min from Singapore JS did a great job making attendees feel at ease to unmute and ask questions. She continued with their usual open mic, leaving 30 mins at the start of the call for folks to eat their dinner together, say hi and say what they wanted to get out of the session
    • Focus on on-demand as well - so realistically, you can expect a ~70% drop out rate to virtual meetups, from your initial registration numbers. That's okay. We saw a x2 uplift in viewers from our on-demand content, within a week. Recommend having a think about where your on-demand content will sit, how accessible it will be to rest of community and maybe how you want to drive awareness of great content sitting online. For example, the Singapore JS meetup partnered with a local on-demand developer content repository, Engineers.SG . This was perfect because they have an existing audience on their site already, so the content was easily accessible to the JS community AND reached new audiences on Engineers.SG platform.
    • Invite an overseas expert - this is both a push and pull reason. The pull is that you bring new expertise to local audiences, which you can't do as easily with in-person events. The push is that you want to ensure you have a good value proposition for why local audiences should spend their evening logged onto your meetup, rather than meet the local speaker another day. And remember to be kind about timezone accommodations. (Mini shoutout! For keeping the promise to communities, and dialing in at 6am/up to 12am, my teammates are the best Aaron Powell, Shayne Boyer, Henk, Laurent <3)
    • Virtual works best with niche audiences, I think - comparing across the 3 meetups, the topics that were more focused/in-depth, got higher engagement. This is also because their audience was also more well-versed with the topic (around level 200 content). The number of questions doubled the questions from meetups where topics were more generic and level 100. It's a really good value prop for folks to tune in for a chance to ask all the questions they want to.
    • It sets the tone for a remote relationship to form with overseas experts - this one mostly applies to DevRel folks in a global team. If you want to better integrate local audiences into your team's global activities, which lessens the time spent on deep localization of everything...you'll love how virtual meetups make it so much easier for your overseas expert to start connecting with local audiences. Simply put, at an in-person event, a speaker has time to meet a max of 5 people during pizza time VS at a virtual event, 15 people can direct message the speaker on a question or start saying hi on social and the relationship continues from there.
    • Include carbon savings into success measures - we saved approximately 35 metric tons of carbon, by dialing instead of flying in 4 speakers from around the world. That's something! And by measuring carbon savings from this experiment, you set good foundation for virtual meetups to become more of a norm as a long-term green initiative, even after this pandemic fades out. Here'sthe calculator I used. For further reading on Green initiatives in tech, ClimateAction.tech is a great community to join too.

    Part 3 on first-party conferences

    As I write this piece on meetups, my team and I have been planning for a first-party virtual conference that's finally taking place on March 7th, join us to check it out https://aka.ms/techcommunityonlineapac. Post-that, I'll write the final piece for this series ✌🏻

    All the best folks! Please stay safe, and for those affected wishing you the best health. And remember, toilet paper hoarding will not solve anything 🧻

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